“The leaders said back to Jesus, “What sign are you going to show us, since you’re doing these things?” Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I’ll raise it back up in three days.” But Jesus was talking about the temple of his body.” –John 2:18-19, 21
Jesus comes to the great Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Passover. It is a scene the synoptic writers place in the narrative of Holy Week. But John frontloads his gospel with the story, a way of saying, “This is who Jesus is, and why he comes.” In one of the most stunning acts of his ministry, Jesus enters the place identified as “God’s house” and dramatically interrupts the whole religious operation. He invades with the force of God’s love. In that force, Jesus sets free the cattle and the sheep being sold as sacrificial offerings for the atonement of sins. He pours out the money being handled by the money changers, overturning their tables of commerce. He disrupts “good order” by laying bare how twisted that order has really become. He tells those selling the turtledoves, the poor people’s offering, “Stop making my Father’s house into a place of merchandise!” Life is not for sale; God’s love is not a product; God will not allow God’s beloved to be defined by their sin.
We traditionally refer to this as “Jesus Cleansing the Temple.” Bible Publishers regularly add this subtitle, which has gone a long way toward shaping popular assumption. You might think Jesus has shown up with a bucket of Mr. Clean and some Pledge, or that he has gotten angry and thrown Bingo for Profit out of the Social Hall. But any serious reading reveals how lacking such a notion is. This is a dismantling; and simultaneously, a raising up of new life that is made visible from the very midst of the collapsed order.
When people come to a church seeking relationship with God, longing for deeper knowledge of and personal encounter with the divine, God is mediated by the architecture, the order of worship, the core beliefs embodied in the people, how members live demonstrably with one another. This is how God is “imaged.” For new folk these impressions are deeply impacting, and many times, painfully disappointing. For longtime participants, these factors are institutionalized, and powerfully shape daily living. How we see God has everything to do with how we see and understand ourselves, and how we relate to the world we live in.
When Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem, the flagship, he is entering a place constructed physically and ritually according to perceived understandings of God and God’s realm. In this case,it is a massive, impressively adorned structure, “God’s Dwelling,” that is also a fearful place, reeking of blood and sacrifice. You could probably smell the Temple for blocks, even miles. Only those long accustomed to the context would fail to notice. In obligation you came, needing to make a sacrificial offering to atone for your sin. For God to be satisfied, and your sins wiped away, something or someone needed to die in return for your life. Your sins would be projected onto the sacrifice, the implications both psychological and frighteningly real. Everyone has to purchase an animal, the most acceptable being those costly and “without blemish.” If you were poor you purchased turtledoves, even if you had to pay with your milk money.
So when Jesus interrupts all this, he’s not just “cleaning things up.” He’s displacing a terribly distorted and violent image of God with a given, truer, personal, merciful reality . A rush of God’s agape self stuns everyone and opens the closed system to the first expressions of the freedom parade.
Let’s allow our imaginations to be stoked by Jesus’ audacious imaging of God in this story, and the powerful way that God’s love is given! Jesus emerges from among God’s beautiful but violently ordered people, lovingly cutting across carefully defined lines.
–He shoos the sheep and the cattle from their terrified, doomed state (this is the purpose of the “whip of cords”). Once the movement begins, we might envision their energized flow parting the crowds as they run unrestrained out into the street (Woo-hoo!!). It is a foretaste of what it is going to be like for the people themselves!
— Jesus reinvests the money that has previously been demanded to satisfy the thirst for blood. We might picture the thrillingly fluid scene: coins rolling and tumbling all over, with God’s most vulnerable children celebrating a little jubilee as they gather them up!
–Jesus confronts the traffickers in life and death (though they wouldn’t think of themselves that way), those at the monied tables and the clergy in the sacrificial container itself. He releases them all from jobs that have no future in God’s loving realm, because God has other, far better plans for their lives!
There is deliverance for everyone. The force of God’s love is shutting down this atonement business, because without the sacrificial victims and the money and the people filing in with their well-meaning, fearful notions of satisfying an angry God, the whole enterprise cannot stand. An impossible future dramatically opens.
While a vivid portrayal of first century sacrifice is one we recoil from, the truth is that the most prominent teaching of at-one-ment in the 20 centuries of the Christian Church is that Jesus died on the cross in our place to pay the price for your/our sin. Even many congregations with a commitment to peacemaking, and a determination to live out the love of God in their mission, have inherited or assumed this understanding. That would mean that God would indeed be the same God for whom someone has to die in payment for human faithlessness; the One who must be satisfied through punishment; the God whose love is mitigated by our sin, and whose actions are shaped, conditioned, by what we do. Discipleship in this context can become a tortured struggle rather than a liberating joy. But we still cannot bring ourselves to move beyond the story as Jesus’ “cleansing” of the temple. Thankfully, Jesus moves us just as surely as he moves every character in the original story! We are “this close” to realizing God’s saving power!
We mustn’t be too hard on those who are upset with Jesus. It is unfair to suggest that they are only angry because he is interfering with their privilege and profit. Jesus is dismantling their system of meaning. He is doing the same for us. The symbolic world that has long given shape and definition is coming down–by God. Like us, they are deeply anxious; if what we have known all our lives is coming apart, what will take its place? What will come of us? And what about the reckoning with centuries of projection and sacrificial purification that we will pass through?
Jesus has an answer: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He offers a new way of being to be lived, shared, realized in the moment. The new order emerges. A dynamic order infused with the life of God, in whom there is no death! This past Saturday, as our “Foundations” group met in a local cafe for our eighth and final scheduled time, we reflected on and celebrated the dimensions of unshackled faith community that we have been richly exploring. What disciplines will continue characterize the faith community Jesus is opening to us? How will God be “imaged” in our life together?
–in the discipline of “being with” (and its endless discovery)
–in the discipline of listening (one that encourages unburdening)
–in the discipline of giving (as we celebrate what we have received)
–in the discipline of sharing all things “in common” (un-boundaried!)
–in the discipline of replacing sacrifice with mercy (interruptions in our daily behavior for new expression)
–in the discipline of loving in the face of hatred (not just with the other’s hatred, but our own, at least seventy-times-seven)
–in the discipline of responding to death with life, repeatedly (talk about an exciting mission field)
Each is the manifestation of freedom, ever-more visible with the displacement of sacrifice. And such anticipation! The God that Jesus reveals to us is the one who is making broken theology whole, along with broken community,and once- broken selves. The inner experience of reconciliation and the astonishment of new communal gifting may be enough to send us woo-hooing into the street in praise!
“Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, speaking of his own body, knowing that they are planning to apply their “ultimate power” of death to him, demonstrating their sacrificial understanding of God by offering him successfully on the cross. They’re going to feed Jesus right into the system. Amen! Because that’s where Jesus needs to go! To the deepest and darkest places: where our guilt is most incapacitating; where our spirits are most calcified; where the the pieces of our relationships that are most painful and bloodied. How else could God’s love transform our lives unless the force of God’s goes to those very places?
Jesus enters the heart of the deathly order, and the love that is God’s resurrection power expands, the machinery of death crashing down. But that is not all. “Destroy this temple . . . and in three days I will raise it up.” And us with him, his “body” in us. How audacious is that? And what a sign of God’s future.